Just when you thought there was nothing more to say about the Queen’s passing, Cannabiz co-founder Martin Lane manages to find a link between the public reaction to it and cannabis legalisation in Australia.
I picked an interesting time to visit the UK. The Queen’s death last week has sparked an outpouring of emotion not seen since Princess Diana passed away.
But that was in the days before social media, when it was still possible to disagree with your neighbour about the future direction of the country and then invite them round to watch the football.
Today, of course, we live in more antagonistic times. So while crowds are pouring onto the streets to pay their respects to Her Majesty, those expressing a dissenting view have been swiftly dealt with via a somewhat heavy-handed police presence.
What’s all this got to do with cannabis, you may ask?
Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about timing this week. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about the role of the monarchy in the UK, and certainly whether that institution should reign over Australia and New Zealand as well.
Now, though, is probably not the best time to have it. Something both countries’ prime ministers have acknowledged by ruling out referendums on the issue any time soon.
History shows that the first rule when asking the public to vote on a single issue is never to do so unless you’re confident you know what the answer will be. The UK left the European Union precisely because few politicians – least of all then-prime minister David Cameron – expected it to actually happen.
If Australia held a referendum on the legalisation of recreational cannabis now, would it pass? I don’t think it would.
Yes, there’s evidence that support for the move among the wider population is growing.
The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found 41% of respondents favoured legalisation, compared to only 25% in 2010.
And, of course, Legalise Cannabis Australia (LCA) recorded a stunning result in May’s federal election, hot on the heels of Dr Brian Walker and Sophia Moermond winning Legislative Council seats in WA in 2021.
But before we get carried away, let’s not forget that in New Zealand, support for decriminalisation reached a peak of 65% three years ahead of the 2020 cannabis referendum, only to fall away to around 45% a month or so before the vote.
And we all know how that turned out.
In an age when nuanced discussion will always be drowned out by snappy soundbites, it became increasingly hard for the Yes campaign’s positive arguments to be heard.
As I wrote at the time…
A quick look at two of the campaign websites sums up the difference.
On saynopetodope.org.nz there are a series of posters featuring the “too precious to be wasted” tagline and some powerful imagery. An All Black here, a crashed car there, and a group of children playing happily outside a “Dope Shop”. All underscored by the core message “Say Nope to Dope”.
Meanwhile, over at makeitlegal.nz there are “20 reasons to vote yes” and a detailed explanation of the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to deny a complaint by the No campaign about one of its ads pointing out the negative consequences of keeping prohibition.
The site notes: “The Noper campaigns, guided by their US handlers, have been pulling a range of dirty tricks against us… Spurious complaints, trying to get us banned from social media, sowing misinformation and confusion, it’s all par for the course. New Zealand people and New Zealand institutions will not be swayed by these kinds of tactics.”
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened.
And while not wishing to downplay the Australian movement’s amazing electoral progress in recent times, it’s worth remembering that success in WA was made possible by so-called ‘preference whispering’ – deals among micro-parties who took turns in preferencing each other highly in one region to boost their percentage of the vote.
The real test will come when Walker and Moermond stand for re-election in 2025 now that the state has abolished group voting tickets.
Meanwhile, LCA’s federal election performance, while notable for its success in regional Australia, was by no means uniform across the country. Certainly not enough to suggest a Yes vote in a referendum would be a formality any time soon.
So where does that leave campaigners?
Elections in Victoria and NSW will provide another opportunity to test public opinion in Australia’s two most populous states within the next six months.
And Legalise Cannabis candidates will continue to contest by-elections with varying degrees of success.
Australia’s state-based electoral system means there is the opportunity for US-style reform, where legalisation creates a domino effect in like-minded areas of the country.
But when it comes to calls for a national referendum, the watchword for now should be patience.
More and more people are accessing – and benefitting from – medicinal cannabis.
Anger is growing – among users and non-users – about the country’s inequitable drug-driving laws.
And this weekend’s 30th annual MardiGrass festival will show how cannabis protest has entered the mainstream, with a string of politicians and performers lining up to show their support.
The time will come when the current waves of protest become a tsunami no government can resist. When opinion polls will consistently show majority support for legalisation.
But we’ll still need to be ready to make the case when that moment arrives.
If New Zealand’s experience teaches us anything, it’s that a coalition of conservative forces will stop at nothing to prevent progress on cannabis reform. And if the chance passes us by, we’ll likely be waiting some time for the next one.
Ask people in the industry to predict when legalisation will happen and the most common answer is three-to-five years.
The other side of the next federal election, in other words.
If that’s right, lobbying the main parties to include a referendum pledge in their 2025 manifesto might not be a bad idea.
As long-term republican Albo will tell you, timing is everything.